Defining “Intrapreneurship” – simply the entrepreneurs within your organization?

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Defining intrapreneurship

simply the entrepreneurs within your organization?


Dear word processing app, ‘Intrapreneurship’ is not a spelling mistake

In my last article I introduced you to a canvas I came up with for stakeholder development in corporate innovation projects (updated version). Quite often, I used the term “Intrapreneurship” – and discussions on how to define that arose …
One thing is sure, even though my word processing app still says so, “Intrapreneurship” is not a spelling mistake.
Surprisingly, ‘intrapreneurship’ is not a new term that was invented only a few years ago. Its first mentions go back to the late 70’s. Nevertheless, the definitions from the early stages have changed over the years.
In this article, I will explain you in an easy and compact way (don´t worry, it won´t take you a long time to read through it):

  • the definition of ‘intrapreneurship’ I developed
  • the main similarities/differences between intrapreneurship and entrepreneurship (more specific articles will follow soon)

This one is to give you an overall understanding of the term intrapreneurship.

My definition of intrapreneurship – what it means to be an intrapreneur

“I am an intrapreneur.”, I say. “Ok, but what are you actually doing?”, is the reaction of my audience. This is a question I have been confronted with several times, and in the beginning, I was struggling to give a compelling answer.
Finding a definition of this term can be challenging. Other designations such as research and developmentinnovationcorporate entrepreneurshipcorporate venturing etc. make it even more difficult to find an all-encompassing explanation of ‘intrapreneurship’. Additionally, the appropriate and up-to-date literature on this topic is hard to find. For this reason, I started to develop my own definition which is the following:

Every purpose-driven doer within an established organization

is an Intrapreneur… whereas the profession of Intrapreneurship can be described as follows:

Intrapreneurship is the art of creating, implementing and scaling innovation projects (incremental, evolutionary or radical) within existing organizations,

thinking and acting like an entrepreneur while pragmatically leveraging the assets of the organization

to increase the speed and the quality of strategy, product, service, process or business development.

Uff… Not fancy and easy to understand when hearing first, right? I´ll get back to this definition in the upcoming articles to dig deeper into the main parts of it… so far, you may also go with this simple thought: Consider those people intrapreneurs, who

“risk their job every day to achieve what they believe is best for society and the company they work for”

As this article is on “entrepreneurship and intrapreneurship”, let´s first have a look at the fundamental difference between these two designations, which is obvious but crucial: While entrepreneurs work outside established organizations and purely focus on building up new ventures, intrapreneurs work exclusively for and within established organizations. They also might develop new ventures, but their scope is wider.

The assets of organizations are what every entrepreneur dreams of, right?

As an entrepreneur who bootstrapped most of his ventures, I know that there´s one thing most entrepreneurs are envious at when talking to people in large organizations: The budget they seem to have is just another dimension. Since I turned into an intrapreneur, I realized that apart from pure cash, there are other even more powerful assets of organizations that intrapreneurs can leverage and entrepreneurs only dream of. I refer to them as the “unfair advantages of intrapreneurs”.
“An intrapreneur´s unfair advantages” (or the assets of organizations):

  • Intelligence (databases and the access to internal experts/qualified employees)
  • Resources (capital, office, techniques, business travels, etc.)
  • Customer access (brand, contacts, established relations, etc.)

This is what every entrepreneur dreams of, am I right?

Think and act as an entrepreneur

But there is also something intrapreneurs dream of – the ability to work in the way entrepreneurs do. Having all the assets ready doesn´t mean that intrapreneurs can rest on it. In order to implement an innovation project in the fastest and most effective way, entrepreneurs are the best example. Their way of developing innovation is unique and effective. For some it´s because of their personal risk they take into account, for others it´s maybe because of their nature. Anyway, successful entrepreneurs show patterns.
Over the last years, these patterns were studied and methods were developed to enable people within existing organizations to work like entrepreneurs.  These are for example Design Thinking, Scrum or Lean Start Up. But ultimately, all those methods are only tools to translate what those street-smart entrepreneurs do for the corporate environment.
“An entrepreneur´s unfair advantages” (or the mindset of an entrepreneur):

  • take fast decisions
  • be aware of iterative procedure and experiments
  • be unconditionally goal oriented
  • work customer-centric beyond buzzwords
  • inspire others to go with you

Why all this? During your project, decisions need sometimes to be done within minutes. But even under time pressure, intrapreneurs need to be able to take a wise choice for the project and the people involved (this also includes the end users!). It doesn´t matter which task you´re dealing with at the moment: always keep the main aim in your mind with the greatest enthusiasm.

This is what intrapreneurs dream of, right?

Don´t work “like a startup” – work better! 

As we´re all “preneurs” of some kind, we don´t only want to dream. Remember the definition I introduced above? I used the term “pragmatically leverage” to summarize what goal a combination of both dreams in reality could serve: How to use the best of both worlds to ensure a long-term ROI of innovation departments increasing the speed and quality of new product and service development.
In the end, we do not only want to innovate like startups – we want to do it better by thinking and acting like an entrepreneurs while pragmatically leveraging the assets of our organization.
To do so, there are crucial factors that need to be taken into account regarding professional education, processes and organizational set up. It is not only to start using those fancy methods mentioned above.
And as if hiring or developing entrepreneurial people as well as adapting processes, the organization and the culture was not enough of a challenge, there is another thing to be taken into account: Pure street-smart entrepreneurs will fail within organizations (if they can be hired at all) like pure book-smart innovation managers will do when being asked to implement a project. “Intrapreneurship” needs a stand-alone definition and a stand-alone professional education. It is a new job description and a new subject to study. We´re only at the beginning of a new age.
In depth articles will follow. Subscribe to my list to join my innovation tribe and to get the articles right in your inbox.
You have some ideas to add? Great, just leave a comment here!

This article was amongst others inspired by:

  • Antoncic, B. and Hisrich, R.D. 2003. “Clarifying the intrapreneurship concept”, in Journal of Small Business and Enterprise Development (10:1), pp. 7-24
  • Antoncic, B. and Hisrich, R.D. 2001. “Intrapreneurship: Construct Refinement and Cross-Cultural Validation”, in Journal of Business Venturing 16, pp. 495-527
  • Maier, V. and Pop Zenovia, C. 2011. “Entrepreneurship versus Intrapreneurship”, in Review of International Comparative Management (12:5), pp. 971-976
  • Parker, S.C. 2009. “Intrapreneurship or Entrepreneurship?”, in Journal of Business Venturing 26, pp. 19-24
  • Seshadri, D.V.R. and Tripathy, A. 2006. “Innovation through Intrapreneurship – The Road Less Travellers”, in Vikalpa: The Journal of Decision Makers (21:1), pp. 17-29